in radical time
Katherine Dunham, the anthropologist, dancer, choreographer, and teacher who was instrumental in introducing African-influenced dance to a wide audience, would make a fantastic subject for a movie. Or two. It would be difficult to fit everything into 90 minutes.
Born in 1909 in Chicago, Dunham began her anthropology studies at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, and her work continued, constantly evolving, until her death in 2006 at the age of 96. She spent time in Haiti, where she did ethnographic field studies and became a voodoo priestess; she had a groundbreaking career on Broadway and in the movies; and she started a school of dance and culture in New York City where James Dean, Eartha Kitt, and Marlon Brando were students.
Dunham formed Ballet Nègre, the Negro Dance Group, and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, touring the world for decades. President Johnson appointed her cultural advisor to the government of Senegal. She was a political activist during the formative days of the civil-rights movement, and she established a school in East St. Louis with an arts program for neighborhood children. At the age of 82, she endured a 47-day hunger strike to draw attention to the plight of the Haitian boat people.
Dunham, called a “one-woman revolution” by Dance Magazine in August 2000 and “dance’s Katherine the Great” by The Washington Post, left behind a complex, multifaceted legacy. But legacies need stewardship, and scholars in anthropology, dance history, black studies, and other fields want to ensure that her reputation will continue to grow. To that end, the School for Advanced Research is hosting a seminar from Sunday, June 6, to Friday, June 11. A public lecture, “Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance,” takes place on Wednesday, June 9.
The seminar’s goal is to develop a plan for future study. It is coordinated by Elizabeth Chin, a former dancer and current professor in the department of critical theory and social justice at Occidental College. She sees the seminar as an opportunity to assemble a “dream team” of scholars, including other dancers-turned-anthropologists, to critique, collaborate, brainstorm, and dance.
Dunham had to decide early on whether to stay in academia or pursue her love for performing. She chose the stage. In a phone interview, Chin described how the choreographer, influenced by the leading cultural theorists of her day, brought back dances, music, and stories from Haiti and other Caribbean islands and then presented them to the audiences of New York with very little revision or theatricality. The “primitive” look of these dances helped start a movement in authentic cultural dance that continues to this day.
Dunham was ahead of her time, according to Chin, who reports that the latest push in anthropological circles is to get the research out in front of the public, in whatever medium works. That’s exactly what Dunham began to do in the 1930s. “She always wanted us to include a cultural, educational element in each class,” said Sarah Anindo Marshall, a certified teacher of Dunham’s technique who worked extensively with the choreographer during years of summer intensives in St. Louis. These were like Dunham conventions, attended by dancers from all over the world. The original Dunham school in New York advertised classes in dance, drama, performing arts, humanities, cultural studies, and Caribbean research.
Toward the end of her life, Dunham’s knee injuries kept her in a wheelchair most of the time. “If she ever decided to get up during a class, to demonstrate something, or make a point, we would instantly surround her, worried that she would fall,” Marshall said. “I worked with hundreds of teachers, all of the best, members of the company. But they’re all dead now.”
Dunham was a grandmother figure to Marshall, who is originally from Kenya. Marshall was discovered in a ballet class in that country by a Dunham company member who was living there while her husband was in the Peace Corps. Marshall quickly took to the rigor and grounding of the new technique, which she studied without learning about Dunham. It wasn’t until she was visiting New York years later and took a dance class that felt uncannily familiar that she learned that she had been dancing Dunham technique at home. Shortly after, she sought out Dunham herself and began a career as a student and teacher of the technique. Speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles, Marshall said, “She was a wise woman; you’d always want her opinion. But she was very strict in class.”
Dunham’s technique is a reflection of the choreographer’s own synthesis as an artist. A blend of ballet, modern, and many Africanbased dance forms from the Caribbean, the technique is notoriously